Bob Lougheed | Legend in His Time

By Don Hedgpeth

Most men confront their own mortality for the first time around the age of fifty with the realization that, in all likelihood, more than half of their life is behind them. Bob Lougheed turned fifty in May, 1960. All things considered, he had every reason to be content with the hand that destiny had dealt him. [His wife] Cordy was part of it, of course, and the happiness of having a home and someone to share it with. Bob knew now that life involved more than only art. Cordy’s companionship filled in the empty space that existed apart from the painting.

Bob valued his friends too, and especially John Clymer. By the 1960s, Bob and John were both acknowledged as among the elite of their generation of illustrators. John was only a couple of years older than Bob, and they had shared the same sort of struggles starting out and breaking into the business. Now they talked about the “old days,” as middle-aged men do, and of how it would be, someday, when the time was right, to just leave it all behind for somewhere else and the freedom to paint for their own pleasure as the muse might move them. There was a lot of talk in the 1960s about “karma,” and if there was really anything to it, Bob had the best kind.

In 1960, Bob was commissioned by National Geographic magazine to produce a series of thirteen paintings depicting various breeds of horses in America. This was a prestigious assignment, and Bob embraced it with enthusiasm. There was nothing he enjoyed painting more than horses. Included among the thirteen breeds involved in the assignment was the American Quarter Horse. National Geographic arranged for Bob to visit the historic Bell Ranch in northeastern New Mexico which was known for breeding outstanding examples of the Quarter Horse for its cowboys to ride.

The Bell Ranch encompassed 300,000 acres out of the original 700,000 acre Montoya land grant that traced back to Spanish colonial times in New Mexico. The ranch was named for a prominent bell-shaped butte that had served as a landmark since the days of conquistadors who had come in search of a fabled place called Cibola and its seven golden cities.

Bob was staggered by the sheer size of the ranch and the vastness of space and of sky. Mule deer and antelope grazed alongside herds of white-faced Hereford cattle at the mid and lower elevations on the ranch. There were said to be mountain lions farther up in the rugged high country, where eagles built their nests in the steep, rocky crags. And then there were the horses, lots and lots of horses, ranch hand remudas and brood mare bands in a rainbow array of colors—more horses than Bob had ever seen before, or even imagined, in one place at one time.

Cattle ranching in the west had changed hardly at all in almost one hundred years, and Bob might have believed he had wandered into another world and another time. His artistic instincts were stirred at the sight of a panorama of cattle and horses and men moving in a cloak of dust across a landscape uncluttered by any sign of modern civilization. It all seemed so different from the way western novels and movies had said it was. Bob knew he was seeing something special, something grand and on a scale that could not be translated into art in the ordinary manner. He came away from the Bell Ranch in the fall of 1960 with much more than the material for a horse picture for National Geographic. The way Bob saw it, “The west is too big to be confined within the boundaries of the canvas. It is necessary to create the impression of a landscape that moves into the painting from one side and continues on out the other. This is when I started to paint the long proportion—twice the length of the depth.”

Bob was invigorated by New Mexico as a man and as an artist. Connecticut felt crowded now in contrast, and even the sky appeared to be smaller than it was out west, where, on a clear, moonlit night, the stars seemed almost close enough to reach up and touch. Bob’s visit to the Bell Ranch in 1960 was the genesis of his career in western art. He would return to the ranch often in the years ahead, to paint and to replenish his reservoir of inspiration.

The demand for Bob’s services as an illustrator continued to increase throughout the 1960s. His popularity made it possible for him to become more selective in the assignments he accepted. The paintings he did on his own time were now, more often than not, scenes of New Mexico done in the “long proportion,” rather than the more confined compositions of the Connecticut countryside.

In 1965, Bob accepted a commission to produce illustrations for a proposed book on the subject of wild horses in the modern West. He and Cordy joined the author, Marguerite Henry, for a week on a remote Wyoming ranch that served as a sanctuary for two surviving bands of mustangs. From a population once numbered in the millions, only an estimated seventeen thousand wild horses and mustangs remained by 1960. Through the efforts of Velma Johnson, who was popularly known as “Wild Horse Annie,” a crusade to save the free-roaming wild horse herds was launched in the early 1960s. Marguerite Henry’s book, Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West, which Bob illustrated, was a part of the campaign that resulted in new federal legislation to protect feral horses by the end of the decade.

The crusade to save wild horses was emblematic of a revival of popular interest in the West that began in the early 1960s. Western art had fallen out of favor early in the twentieth century with the advent of impressionism and the subsequent offshoots of abstract art. Russell and Remington were dead, and it was as if their genre had died with them. But by the Sixties, the West was once again in vogue. The reputations of the early western artists were redeemed, and a vigorous contemporary movement began to exert its influence. The vanguard of the new movement was an informal group called the Cowboy Artists of America, founded in 1965 by four Arizona artists: Charlie Dye, George Phippen, John Hampton, and Joe Beeler. Coincidently, 1965 was also the year the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center opened in Oklahoma City. The following year, the Cowboy Artists, whose membership had increased to thirteen, presented their inaugural exhibition at the new museum.

Back east, top illustrators and frustrated fine artists tracked the new movement and wondered about its implications for their careers. Bob Lougheed visited the Cowboy Hall of Fame for the first time in the spring of 1967 to receive a Western Heritage Award with Marguerite Henry for their collaboration on Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West. With a predilection for painting horses, his Bell Ranch ties to New Mexico, a Western Heritage Award to his credit, and the influential endorsement of Dean Krakel [director of the Cowboy Fall of Fame], Bob Lougheed was perfectly positioned to make the transition from eastern illustration to western fine art. In the fall of 1967, the Cowboy Artists added eight new names to their membership roster, including a fifty-seven-year-old Canadian-born painter named Robert E. Lougheed.

For the rest of 1967 and into the New Year, Bob divided his time between completing commercial commitments and working on paintings for Oklahoma City. He could not have been busier, or happier.

The Lougheeds were back at the Bell Ranch again that fall [1968] in time for the roundup. Before starting home, Bob and Cordy swung by Santa Fe to see the sights. They strolled around the main plaza where Pueblo women displayed silver and turquoise treasures on colorful hand-woven rugs and the sweet smell of piñon smoke wafted in the wind. And on the long drive back to Connecticut, they talked about what it would be like to live in such a place, to wake up each morning to impressionistic landscapes of mountains and clouds painted in sunrise colors upon a canvas of Santa Fe sky.

Back home again in Connecticut, Bob limited his commercial commitments in order to be able to concentrate on his western work. All through the cold, dark days of the New England winter, he basked in the warmth of his work and the memory of southwestern sunshine. He began work on the largest and most ambitious painting he had ever attempted, a thirty-inch by sixty-inch canvas in the “long proportion,” conceived in his mind’s eye out on the Bell Ranch in the company of cowboys. This painting, The Bell Remuda, would validate Bob’s legitimacy as a western artist. It would also make him a prominent figure in the contemporary western art movement. This one painting changed Bob Lougheed’s life.

At the 1969 Cowboy Artists show in Oklahoma City, The Bell Remuda garnered the gold medal for oil painting and earned Bob the respect of his fellow artists and the excited attention of collectors and dealers alike. In the catalog of Bob’s posthumous retrospective exhibition in 1990, Jill Warren and Dave Smith said of The Bell Remuda:

This performance in paint illustrates Lougheed’s ability to tackle a major task—putting more than 50 horses into one painting—yet come up with an elegantly simple design and maintain fidelity to an important principle of painting—massing and simplifying. He focuses the panorama of the expansive landscape through the use of a dramatic diagonal formed by the horses coming out of the stream and into the center of interest.

This is a complex picture, featuring the movement of horses, yet it is not bogged down with unnecessary detail. Many viewers have wondered about the design or even symbolic implications of the only white horse in the remuda leading the herd up the hill. But Lougheed was just depicting reality; that white mare always led the way.

Not many people today have the ability to lose edges as Lougheed did in this painting, not by wiggling his brush but by juxtaposing horses of different colors. The same value is placed next to each other so the edges merge naturally. Each horse is an exact portrait of the horse Lougheed used as a model, and every one is different.

One of the hit movies of 1969 was a western titled Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by George Roy Hill. In the film’s most memorable scene, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who played the legendary outlaws, stand together trying to muster the courage to leap off a cliff in order to escape certain capture. Bob Lougheed and John Clymer stood together on their own metaphorical precipice in 1969, and, facing west, they too jumped and got away, just like Butch and Sundance.

Clymer landed in northwestern Wyoming and lived for the rest of his life in the shadow of the Grand Tetons near Jackson Hole. It came as no surprise to Cordy that Bob chose New Mexico for his getaway. In early 1970, Bob and Cordy found the perfect place, an old adobe hacienda in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just a few miles outside of Santa Fe. That first year in New Mexico Bob completed two major paintings which those who know his work consider to be his masterpieces: On the Edge of the Sangre de Cristos and Ten Miles to Saturday Night. It truly was a banner year for him.

By 1970, the contemporary western art movement had become a full-blown cultural phenomenon. The Cowboy Artists were still the vanguard of the movement, and their annual show and sale at the Cowboy Hall of Fame was the benchmark against which the western art business measured itself. And business was good. Galleries featuring western art had established a permanent presence in small towns and cities all over the West, and weekend invitational shows attracted crowds of collectors from California to Kansas. Prices continued to escalate as collectors and dealers competed to acquire works by the best known names, particularly those who, like Bob, had won Cowboy Artists awards.

Over the next decade, Bob and Cordy traveled extensively, including long trips to France and England. Bob won countless awards for his work and became a cherished mentor to many younger artists who went on to find fame and fortune of their own. His reputation as “the painter’s painter” was solid and well earned.

Robert Elmer Lougheed died at home on June 3, 1983, at the age of seventy-two. He was survived by his devoted wife and companion, Cordelia Ervin Lougheed, and by an estimated five thousand paintings which were his children. Found among the papers in Bob’s studio is the following statement written around the time he was shipping paintings for a show in November of 1981:

This Morning, sitting around my studio are twenty paintings. Some are of Quebec, some are of Ontario, where I was born, New Mexico where I now live, Connecticut where I spent my formative years—and they were well spent—of western Canada, where the joy of painting majestic mountains is recorded, and paintings of France, where all artists should spend at least one month of their life, painting.

All of these works were fathered by me and now sit in front of me, finished and framed. I raised them and lived with them. I will miss them because they are my children. They have been a part of me and a part of my life. They were difficult at times, there were many problems, but, like all children, they grew up, and many of the rough edges were knocked off along the way, and I am now sending them out into the world to live on their own.

Good luck to you, and may you not shame your maker. I hope you will make some people as happy as you have made me. I shall miss you. — REL